A NOBODY? — “Toldos” – Gen. 25:19-28:9, by Rabbi Baruch Cohon –
This week we will read a section called “Toldos Yitzhok” – literally, the history of Isaac. Very quickly we see that Isaac, the second of our patriarchs, is described in terms of other people. He is the son of Abraham, the husband of Rebecca, the father of Jacob and Esau. And who is he?
To quote my uncle of blessed memory, Rabbi Beryl D. Cohon z”l of Boston, this history could be called the portrait of a Nobody.
A nobody? Let’s see. Does Isaac really have no importance? Certainly he carries forward a spark of Abraham’s inspiration. Just as certainly he finds love and fulfillment in his union with Rebecca. Like his father before him, he has two sons who are quite different from each other, and he will have a crisis over which one to call his real heir.
Unlike his father, he gets a direct message from G-d only twice. Once, he is told to stay in Canaan despite hard times, and not to go to Egypt, because this land of Canaan will belong to him and his descendants as G-d promised Abraham. The second Divine vision comes in a dream and gives him a blessing, and when he gets up, excited and inspired, he builds an altar and has his men dig a well. By contrast, Abraham had many one-on-ones with the Almighty. Is Isaac less holy?
Morris Adler, a rabbinical scholar of the last century, asks “What did Isaac do? He preserved a tradition; he held onto it; he received it and he was loyal to it. In a world of constant change, in a world where new fashions are sought and new habits constantly arise, in a world that never stops for a moment in its fluctuations, Isaac is not simply a negative character. He is the son of Abraham and the father of Jacob. He kept the chain that was handed to him… In all of his actions a tradition was preserved.”
Without Isaac the Jewish people would not exist. All through the centuries, individual Jews proudly bear his name. You and I and many others can identify with him because we link generations. To tend the flame of continuity is our mission. Family traditions, religious traditions, national traditions all bring pride and meaning to our lives. We who bear those traditions and add to them and pass them on are carrying on Isaac’s work.
Part of that work involves listening. Maybe he only heard a Divine voice directly twice. But there was another voice he heard quite often. Rebecca. She is the one who travelled many miles to marry a stranger – Isaac, a man of 40 still brooding over his mother’s loss. Rebecca is the one whose love points him toward the future. She is the one who selects which of her twin sons will actually be able to carry on the sacred family heritage. Maybe Esau can supply his father with venison, but Jacob can build him a nation. Rebecca sees that, so she connives with Jacob to get his father’s blessing, by pretending to be Esau who had prior rights to it being a few minutes older. And she is the one who saves Jacob from his brother’s murderous fury by sending him to her home town – meanwhile complaining to Isaac about the Canaanite girls Esau brings home, and convincing him to send Jacob on the trip she already prepared him for, to find a wife from among his mother’s clan.
Isaac listens to good advice. No, don’t call him henpecked. He knows when his wife is right! Isaac builds his family, and establishes residence in the land that will be theirs. I beg to differ with my uncle’s opinion. Isaac is not a Nobody. He is the indispensable link that joins the generations.
Considered that way, Isaac’s story is the portrait of a Somebody.